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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Readers Debate Trade-Offs Between Security and Civil Liberties


Does more liberty necessarily mean less security, and vice versa?

Absolutely not, according to some of the readers who commented on my post on the security trade-offs of the post-9/11 decade for The Agenda, our continuing discussion of fundamental issues getting less than full debate in the presidential campaign. I talked about how the government's beefed-up counterterrorism measures have led to a calculated erosion of privacy and civil liberties. I asked whether the next president should consider a recalibration, since there has been nothing like a repeat of the Sept. 11 attacks, or whether the government's current surveillance programs and other intrusive measures should be maintained to protect the public.

But Marc Rotenberg, the president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, was among several readers who thought the question was posed incorrectly.

“Giving up civil liberties does no t enhance security in a constitutional democracy,” Mr. Rotenberg wrote. “It transforms the character of the society, making it less open, less resilient, and more prone to the illusions of security theater.”

Some readers cited variants of the classic Benjamin Franklin epigram: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

But who decides what liberty is “essential”? And is protection from terrorism just “a little temporary safety,” or something more crucial?

Some who wrote responses argued that security from terrorism is an essential precondition for liberty. Francine from Massachusetts wrote that “Freedom and liberty are assured by security.” She added: “I'm not a huge fan of either the Patriot Act or Homeland Security. But the idea of coordinating information among various agencies and speeding up the process by which emergencies can be dealt with was an idea long overdue.”

Air travel, she wrote, “is a privilege, not a right. I would rather not die in a terrorist attack, thank you very much.”

R.L.K. from Chappaqua, N.Y., doesn't get those who complain about security measures: “Other than some small delay getting on planes, I hardly notice much difference between the way I ran my life pre-9/11 and now.” In fact, R.L.K. added, “I am grateful for the added security. There really has been very little or no diminishing of my rights or my freedom. And I am thankful, rather than resentful, for that.”

Jon from New York City, was still more blunt: “Stare a real terrorist in the eyes in combat, and then tell me we don't need these measures.”

But other readers are more skeptical about the government's huge security build-up since the 2001 attacks. Those who attribute the absence of major terrorist attacks in the years since to government actions “confuse correlation with c ausation,” wrote Bradley Bleck from Spokane, Wash. “We have given up liberty for the illusion of security.”

Pribilof of Denver agreed: “I think we have gone too far in giving up liberty for ‘security,'” Pribilof wrote. “Do you really want the government wiretapping and gathering your G.P.S. data without a warrant or judicial review? Do we really want habeas corpus suspended, even for terrorism suspects? What a terrible precedent to set.”

Cameron Bedard, of Providence, R.I., connected the government's increased surveillance measures and those of private companies, whose databases the government often acquires. “Suppose you are a law abiding citizen and you have ‘nothing to hide'. You are comfortable with the increasing number of surveillance cameras lining your streets, the expanding powers given to law enforcement officials to monitor your emails and electronic communications without warrant and you do not have an issue when subjected to more rigorous security checks at rail stations, airports or on public transportation.”

But Cameron asks: “How would you feel if an affair were disclosed to your significant other after a private investigator requested your driving record from Microdesign's Electronic Toll Collection database? That is the company that aggregates data on automobiles passing through toll booths across the country. They also sell that information for profit, not only to the state but to restaurateurs. The point is, we all have something to hide.”

Scott H., from New York, concluded that the government was unlikely to give up any of the powers it has obtained over the last decade: “Assuming the next president is Obama or Romney, I see no evidence of either one of them heading toward conclusion B” â€" that is, downsizing the security measures.

Another reader using the screen name Angry Panda echoed that view: “Power, once gained, is not easily surrendered, whether by the Wh ite House (extrajudicial killings, etc.), the Pentagon (enemy combatant rules), or the national security complex (warrantless wiretaps, etc.).” Today, this reader wrote, “There are huge economic and political interests in play here, not to mention a very convenient expansion of the security state as far as the elite are concerned. Why would this change now?”

In the next few weeks, we will try to move from this animated but general debate to some more focused posts on striking developments in security, surveillance, the technology that drives them and the laws that enable them.